By Dr Loh Kah Seng and Dr Thum Ping Tjin
On this Labour Day, in our 50th year of independence, it is timely to reflect on how the labour movement in the 1950s played a critical role in our history, in particular its role in our independence movement.
This history highlights three points: one, Singaporean workers organised a strong autonomous movement for labour rights and independence; two, the movement was a legitimate one, and was not subverted by the communists or anti-nationalists; and three, workers, in seeking to reform the capitalist system, framed these ideas in the context of anti-colonialism and self-determination.
Labour Rights and Singapore’s Independence
Singapore in the early 1950s was a wealthy colonial port – but one that was struck by great social inequality. Singapore was developed and rich, but that wealth was limited to a narrow English-speaking European and local elite. It was built on the exploitation of Singapore’s working class. There were no protections for workers, who suffered under oppressive working conditions – 18 hour working days, no days off or paid vacations, and legal discrimination against women, the elderly, and those who did not have qualifications from English-language schools. These anti-labour laws had long been struck down in the UK as inhumane, but continued to exist in its colonies. Only pro-government unions were permitted to exist, and strikes were illegal. Thanks to high unemployment, employers could fire workers who protested their working conditions, and replace them with cheaper workers from Singapore’s large pool of desperate residents. Healthcare, housing, and education were all largely private and very costly. All this was the consequence of a colonial economy which was responsible to London, not to Singapore’s people.
Consequently, it was the issue of labour rights which provided the greatest impetus for anti-colonialism and independence. It was the demand for fair treatment for workers and an end to legalised discrimination against the labouring class that gave the anti-colonial movement strength. The most successful political parties in Singapore were founded as the political wings of the trade union movement – initially the Labour Front representing the Singapore Trade Union Congress (STUC), and then, more impressively, the People’s Action Party (PAP) as the political wing of the “Middle Road” group of trade unions. When the Labour Front won the 1955 elections for partial self-government, it was STUC leader Lim Yew Hock who became the Minister of Labour alongside David Marshall as Chief Minister. The new attitude was immediately evident in response to the strike at the Hock Lee Bus Company.
The Strike against the Hock Lee Bus Company
In April 1955, the Singapore Bus Workers’ Union (SBWU) had no intention to strike against the Hock Lee Bus Company, but had to resort to one when the company tried to break the union. The company originally agreed terms with the union on 4 April 1955, but then quietly hired new workers and fired all unionised workers. This forced the union to call a strike, and workers picketed the depot and tried to prevent the buses from leaving. These events were well documented at the time in the Chinese, Malay, and Tamil newspapers, and entered into the official record during in the work of the government-appointed independent Court of Inquiry into the strike.
The previous month, workers at the Paya Lebar Bus Company attempted to strike for better wages and working conditions. In response, the company summarily dismissed 22 workers and the strike was broken when 82 strikers were arrested by police.
However, by the time the strike at Hock Lee began, the new Labour Front government had assumed office. Instead of condemning the strike and sending in the police to arrest strikers, David Marshall sought to be fair, and to mediate between management and labour. A Court of Inquiry ruled in favour of the workers but the company tried to avoid reinstating them via a technicality. This forced the pickets to reform, and angry Singaporeans joined them as word spread of the injustice. Some workers were hurt when the company tried to drive its buses through the pickets.
As frustrations grew, the atmosphere at the depot grew increasingly tense. After a two and a half week standoff, police and workers clashed, and a riot broke out.
The PAP, then a left-wing socialist party, accused the police of unprovoked violence. Lee Kuan Yew, the union’s legal adviser and Legislative Assembly Member for Tanjong Pagar, spoke in support of the strike in the Assembly on 16 May 1955. He pointed out that Singapore’s Chinese-speaking people and working class had legitimate grievances as they experienced systematic and repressive discrimination from the colonial government.
Much of the reason for the strike, he argued, lay in the exploitative nature of labour-management relations in post-World War II Singapore, with employers – backed by the colonial government – not wanting to deal with the new independent unions established in the British mould. Chinese school students had supported the strike not because of communist propaganda, but because Chinese school graduates, like the workers, had limited job prospects.
However, the British and Singapore governments ignored the complex reasons behind popular discontent and framed the riots as a law and order issue. Throughout the strike, internal colonial memoranda and reports did not mention or evaluate the legitimacy of the workers’ grievances. Instead, they presented the management’s views and stressed that the various strikes were illegal under the Emergency Regulations due to a lack of sufficient advance notice.
An Exaggerated Communist Threat
Historians researching the imperial and local archives have found that the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) supported approved of the strike initially in principle, but were not responsible for it. In fact, there is conclusive evidence that it was actively discouraging violence.
When the strikes took place, the MCP in Singapore was more or less a spent force. In 1950, its leadership was arrested. Two years later, the party had instructed its cadres in Singapore to peacefully support leftwing political parties. In 1954, the student infiltration branch was arrested followed shortly by the arrest of the entire labour infiltration branch (comprising, by then, just a single MCP cadre). By 1955, the only functioning section of the MCP in Singapore was the one responsible for publishing “Freedom News”, who were not activists and dealt only with propaganda.
It made little strategic sense for the party to foment disorder and risk a security crackdown when it could expand its influence through constitutional means under the Rendel Constitution of 1954. The Constitution partially lifted the repressive regime of the Emergency Regulations in giving elected Singaporeans some experience in self-government; thus from 1954, leftwing political groups and mass organisations were formed and Singapore politics became more contentious and vibrant.
Indeed, Special Branch documents placed primary responsibility for the riot on the PAP for seeking to exploit the strike for political gain, thus creating the conditions which led to the riot, not on the MCP. However, the Special Branch still erred in viewing the riots as a case of external manipulation, rather than as a failure to address legitimate grievances. Lee Kuan Yew and Fong Swee Suan, both founder-members of the PAP, made strenuous efforts during the strike to keep frustrated union leaders at the negotiating table with management that repeatedly refused to make honour its agreements.
Under pressure from David Marshall, Hock Lee Bus Company management capitulated and agreed to honour the April 1955 agreement. This marked the beginning of a new era in Singapore, where workers could genuinely fight for their rights. This in turn inspired other discriminated groups in Singapore to fight for their rights as well. But the colonial establishment continued to resist. It soon became clear that the only way for Singaporeans to have fairness and justice was for Singapore to free itself from colonialism and become an independent country, with a democratically elected government that was accountable to its people. The anti-colonial, left-wing, socialist, pro-labour PAP was elected in 1959 on precisely this platform: democracy via independence, either on its own or via reunification with Malaya.
Events such as the Hock Lee Bus strike should thus not be viewed as ‘days of rage’, as the Channel NewsAsia documentary last year termed it, but as part of a history of hope. New, autonomous nationalists emerged in the more open political environment under the Rendel Constitution. Some, like leftwing union leaders Lim Chin Siong and Fong Swee Suan, were from the Chinese middle schools; others, such as leftwing intellectuals and activists Sydney Woodhull and Lim Hock Siew, graduated from the University of Malaya in Singapore; and some were educated abroad, including Fabian socialists Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee.
They worked together, in the PAP, the unions, and other mass organisations, to win freedom and justice for Singapore. All of them at various points were suspected by the British as being tools of the communists, but there has never been any conclusive evidence that any of them took orders from the MCP.
The convergence of these diverse groups of nationalists was instrumental to ending British colonialism. They had different ideologies (Fabian socialist, Marxist, or liberal-democratic), but were singularly dedicated to the formation of a free, socialist Malaya (including Singapore) through constitutional means. They were also internationalists in the sense that they were inspired by ideas of self-determination and modernisation prevailing throughout the world.
The period between the late 1940s and 1960s was an extraordinary time of political and cultural pluralism, where young, idealistic people were determined to cast out the old system and build a modern nation.
Working Singaporeans Today
Today, our view of the future has been dimmed by current challenges, such as the cost of living and economic uncertainty due to the global financial system, as well as by state policies on labour (including foreign labour) and the corporatisation of public services. At the same time, evident in the results of recent elections and growth in social activism (both in NGOs and the social media), there is continuing hope that we – Singaporean workers – may surmount our difficulties together, as our counterparts and political leaders did half a century ago in finding a path out of colonialism.
This parallels the challenges which faced us sixty years ago, and how we rose to meet them. On 3 May 1955, the Nanyang Siang Pau, the largest newspaper in Singapore, celebrated this new spirit in its editorial:
The Labour Front and the PAP are both Leftist political parties and have shown their unity in spirit with the working public in seeking reforms. If the party in power and the opposition parties can cooperate with mutual encourage, the future will be very bright. If would be possible then that society would be given an entirely new complexion, and reasonable and judicious reforms would be introduced into our system of production…. With a Leftist government making efforts to give fair treatment to workers and another Leftist party in opposition monitoring and making complaints on behalf of workers, they would cooperate and coordinate in a suitable way to speed up the necessary reforms and wipe out all injustice.
We worked together then and made Singapore a prosperous country with equality of opportunity, justice, and democracy. Let us do so again to meet the challenges of our present and future.
Dr Loh is Assistant Professor at the Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University, and Dr Thum is Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia, University of Oxford.